27 September 2013

Cacique novels of F. Sionil José

He who owns the land holds power. That, in a nutshell, is the basic principle of caciquism. In the countryside, the ruling class is usually made up of landowners and land grabbers. The political economy of the Philippines is closely tied to land acquisition and the transfer of properties, from one colonial master to the next, from the hacendero to the heirs of the hacendero. Land is the very stage of lifeways and cultures. It is also, ultimately, the modern space of class conflict. Finite and limited, the parcels of vacant land are running out. Those enterprising individuals who invested in land are the prime movers of that space. They maneuver in their hands the social, political, and economic spaces of the nation.

Among novel writers in the Philippines, F. Sionil José is one of those who closely documented in his fiction the historical conflicts and interplay between the landed and the landless. As a journalist, his reportage on the post-war national agrarian problem are influential in the crafting of land reform policies. His famous novels – the widely translated five-part epic called the "Rosales novels" (1962-1984) and Ermita (1988) – coincided closely with the rise of the cacique in Philippine society.

Origins of cacique

The political theorist Benedict Anderson charted in his country study "Cacique Democracy in the Philippines" [1] the emergence and ascendance of cacique/landlords from late 19th century colonial Philippines to the immediate aftermath of 1986 People Power Revolution. This is the same period which Sionil José sporadically mapped in his novels dealing with relations between the landlord and the common mass. His fiction was colored by nationalist calls for social justice, equity, and rights-based governance.

Anderson traced the origins of the cacique to "Chinese mestizos who bloomed economically under the Spanish colonial regime and consolidated their wealth with political power under the Americans". The "-co" suffix in the surnames (Cojuangco, Cuenco, Tanjuatco, etc.) of prominent Filipino-Chinese oligarchs at present was apparently derived "from the Hokkienese k'o, a term of respect for older males". The Manila galleon trade (1564-1815) was an opportunity for long-term economic exchange with Chinese merchants. The Church's indoctrination of Christian faith would eventually target these merchants (sangleys). The Chinese would sire "Chinese mestizos" [2], and the Church will be successful in converting them. When the sangleys were expelled from the Philippines after they aided the British in occupying Manila in 1762, the mestizos took over and later came to dominate local trade and even acquired lands.

The expulsion of the Chinese was lifted in 1834 when Manila was once again opened to international trade after the final galleon sailed in 1811. The Chinese, through their hard work and legendary work ethic [3], once again captured the market. The mestizos were driven to the countryside where they were able to capitalize on fertile lands for cultivation. They became hacendados. In the course of the Spanish rule, the religious orders were also able to parcel out vast tracts of land among themselves, what became known as "friar lands".

The filthy rich mestizos, now "provincial caciques", were able to send their children abroad for education. In 1880s these students came to be known as ilustrados, an anticlerical intelligentsia who started to acquire nationalist sentiments and, by the end of 19th century, to call themselves "Filipino", a term originally designated for Spanish creoles. The intermarriage within this emerging class consolidated power and property among themselves. The ilustrados and mestizos would play significant (ideological) roles in the outbreak of Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896 and in the ensuing Philippine-American War. At the turn of the 20th century, the new colonial masters, the Americans, would eventually seize the friar lands and award them to some Chinese mestizos.

Po-on (1984), or Dusk, was the first chronological volume of Sionil José's Rosales saga. It was also the last to be written to close his five-novel cycle. The focus is on the extended Salvador family who was displaced from their ancestral lands by the Spanish authorities after Ba-ac, the maimed patriarch of the Salvador clan, killed a Spanish priest after the priest – the same one who ordered the torture that led to Ba-ac's disability – ridiculed and hit him. The hardships and persecution encountered by the family as they fled the Spanish guards was almost biblical in tone. They came face to face not only with the cruelty of the authorities but with cruel forces of nature. By the second half of the novel, the Salvador family (who later changed their name to Samson to avoid detection) finally came to the large plains of Rosales which were owned by several mestizos. It was a place where they can finally settle in after a very long journey.

It was one of those new towns carved out of cogonal wastes and forests by settlers like them. Like most of the new towns that lined the road to the Valley, its leading citizens were mestizos [4] who were the favorites of the friars. Some took advantage of the recent opening of the colleges in Manila for Indios and went to the University of Santo Tomas to study law and medicine, and be infected, too, with the ideas of liberalism, that deadly contagion which the friars detested and ranted against. Large tracts of land toward the east, all the way to that prosperous village of Balungaw to the very foothills of Mount Balungaw, were claimed by the first Spanish settler in this part of the country, but there was also equally large areas titled to the principalia—the educated men like Don Jacinto.

The locals advised the Samsons, now led by Istak, to seek the help of the wealthy landowner Don Jacinto, a cacique positively depicted here as a good Samaritan. Don Jacinto is presented as a typical ilustrado class whose progressive, anti-colonial leanings are evident when he gave refuge to Apolinario Mabini, a historical figure and crippled intellectual and known as "Brains of the Revolution". He also secretly treasured the two subversive novels of José Rizal. (The richest of the landowners in the area were the Asperris, the focus of the next two volumes of the novel.)

Istak accepted the landlord's offer for them to cultivate the land for him in exchange for seed rice and a place to stay. So began the Samson family's new life as farm workers under a landlord.

Being essentially about the emergence of national identity as offshoot of colonialism exacted by the Spanish and Americans, Po-on was not what can be properly called a "cacique novel" since caciquism was only slightly touched upon in the end and served only to bridge it with the rest of the novels in the saga. Its concerns were nonetheless significant in re-imagining the shared identity of a community, consistent to the template on nationalism given by Anderson.

It was interesting how in the second Rosales novel, Tree (1978), the narrative voice was entirely given over to the young son of an overseer (encargador) of land for the absentee landlord Don Vicente Asperri. The overseer appeared to be a descendant of Don Jacinto. We know this only from the big, old balete tree in front of Don Jacinto's house – the titular tree that was a marker and also symbol for time who was the enduring witness to all the blood and tears of the tenant farmers working for Don Vicente. How the overseer came to work for the Spanish Don Asperri was categorically explained.

Father took the job because Don Vicente trusted him and, more than that, it gave Father a sense of power such as he would never have known if he tended no more than the land and properties under his name. Once, I heard him say to a tenant, “Don’t you know that I can drive you all away from your homes today, right now, if I wanted to? Where will you live? Don Vicente’s word is law and I am that law!”

Don Vicente now wielded such naked power because his landholdings were more expansive than ever – "It’s common knowledge [Don Vicente] grabbed these lands because the farmers didn’t know anything about cadastral surveys and Torrens titles." It's possible he came to acquire some of the lands of Don Jacinto. (One can surmise that the Americans confiscated some of Don Jacinto's lands for his involvement in the Philippine Revolution and awarded the same to his neighboring rival.)

The reliable voice of the unnamed young narrator of Tree provided an intimate look at rural life in the Philippines during the first half of the 20th century from American rule up to the 1935 Commonwealth period and the Japanese invasion in the second world war. An heir to an upper middle class landowner, the boy reminisced about his childhood and his relations with the characters (his family's servants, laborers, and farm workers, all below his class standing) [5] that left indelible memories to his young mind. As various character portraits began to accumulate, we came to know more and more not only about the narrator but about the life of his father as a broker for the landlord Don Vicente. The local conflict between the landlord and the landless was set against the larger backdrop of colonial history and yet the weight of history and politics was balanced by the moving personal stories of the working class characters. It also proposed a "personal form of ethics"

I continue, for instance, to hope that there is reward in virtue, that those who pursue it should do so because it pleases them. This then becomes a very personal form of ethics, or belief, premised on pleasure. It would require no high sounding motivation, no philosophical explanation for the self, and its desires are animal, basic—the desire for food, for fornication.

This ethical vision will not be realized until the appearance of Pepe Samson, the protagonist in the final Rosales novel whose independent, individualistic spirit contrasted with the fatalistic attitudes of his forebears.

Political entrenchment

Anderson explained how the cacique consolidated power during the American occupation of the Philippines. The political and economic systems introduced by the new colonizers were conducive to the hacendados. In the first place, the lands expropriated from the Spanish religious orders were auctioned off to affluent mestizos. The "Congress-style bicameral legislature" introduced by the Americans wherein elective positions were contested in insulated bailiwicks were also favorable to them. Political power was easily attained by the influential few. This, Anderson noted, expanded the role of caciques from local landlords to elite members of the national oligarchy. This, in effect, also contributed to the rise of political dynasties in the country.

But Congress, which thus offered them guaranteed access to national-level political power, also brought them together in the capital on a regular basis. There more than at any previous time, they got to know one another well in a civilized "ring" sternly refereed by the Americans. They might dislike one another, but they went to the same receptions, attended the same churches, lived in the same residential areas, shopped in the same fashionable streets, had affairs with each other's wives, and arranged marriages between each other's children. They were for the first time forming a self-conscious ruling class.

In the third Rosales novel My Brother, My Executioner, the charismatic figure of Don Vicente Asperri, the missing and yet omniscient landlord in Tree, finally appeared and fulfilled the role of the cruel hacendado. The novel introduced a philosophical conflict between two brothers: the poet and journalist Luis (Don Vicente's son) and his half-brother Victor who joined the Hukbalahap rebels. As with Tree, Sionil José privileged the voice of the privileged. It was a self-critical voice, aware of the chameleon-like character of the cacique in times of war and peace.

Look around you and whom do you see? It's the scum who are getting the largest part of the cake—the thieves, the grafters—and we know it. The traitors, those who collaborated with the Japanese—and it's only five years after the war—it is they who are now in power and they even call themselves patriots.

Luis was a character study in inconsistency, flawed character for a flawed human being. He was heir to Don Vicente's huge fortune yet he identified with his mother and with Victor because he grew up poor with them before his father claimed him and brought him to the Asperri mansion.

The story was filled with emotional conflict and dramatic action (there was a mass killing scene that was as relevant as yesterday's news). However, My Brother, My Executioner failed in terms of plot and style. The narrative this time felt contrived and didactic and, by relying too much on Luis's emotive reflections and less on Victor's fiery views, overtly sentimental and precious.

In contrast, the "cacique novels" in the vernacular language covering the same postwar period—Lazaro Francisco's Maganda pa ang Daigdig and its sequel Daluyong, and Amado V. Hernandez's Luha ng Buwaya—contained more than a powerful exposition of land tenure system as a deadly disease of society. The tenants in these fine novels took center stage as they actively resisted the caciques and fought their way out of their predicament, whereas Sionil José here, though he provided some emotional contexts about the tenancy problem, complicated the plot too much.

The bottom line, however, was similar to these novels. Luis, in his unsent letter to his brother, recognized that the activist is the true artist, the architect of revolution, shaper of destinies—"It is you then, my fearsome executioner, who is the artist, the rebel and creator, for it is you who will make beauty out of the ugliness which pervades our lives, out of the dungheap that surrounds us". Rebels and revolutionaries are the "ultimate modernizers", for they will execute the cacique figures in society. The true poet has literal blood in his hands. Sionil José was pointing to the method of ridding the country of evil, the same method Pepe Samson espoused in Mass.


[1] Anderson, B. 2004. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (Ateneo de Manila University Press), pp. 192–226, originally published by Verso in 1998. The essay first appeared in New Left Review, 169 (May–June 1988).

[2] The term "mestizos", Anderson noted, came to mean the children of Chinese and local women, and not of Spaniards and "natives".

[3] For a description of the nature of Chinese merchants as incomparably enterprising individuals in 16th century Philippines, see "Taipan Origins in 1590" by Ambeth Ocampo in his Looking Back 6: Chulalongkorn's Elephants: The Philippines in Asian History (Anvil, 2011), pp. 48–51.

[4] Sionil José's usage of "mestizo" refer to the offspring of Spaniards and local women. Ambeth R. Ocampo explains the term mestizo as a half-breed, in "1896 Philippines: Racial context of the revolution", Bones of Contention: The Andres Bonifacio Lectures (Anvil, 2001), pp. 103–104:

The term "mestizo" (from the Latin mixticius) meant the children of parents of different races, particularly a mix of indio and foreign blood. More often than not, however, mestizo meant Chinese half-breedsmestizos de sangleyes or mestizos chinos—of either Spanish-Chinese or Chinese-indio mixtures. The equally prominent, but numerically small Spanish mestizos posed a bit of a problem: in the first centuries of the Spanish period, officially, a Spanish[-indio] mestizo could not exist.

[5] Chapter 13 of Tree contained a portrait of the narrator's uncle Tio Doro, a man devoted to politics and at odds with the Chinese rice merchant Mon Luk whom he detested for controlling the retail trade and to whom many people owed money. Mon Luk suffered during the Japanese occupation and became a pauper overnight when his rice mill was razed to the ground. Later, Mon Luk became friends with Tio Doro and even "borrowed a little capital from [Tio Doro] to start business anew." Another Chinese entrepreneur, Chan Hai, also seemed to recover his business after the war.

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